Everyone knows the drill: Dial, then wait. Then wait some more, as a nondescript but vaguely irritating tune drones on. If customer surveys are to be believed, many people will lose whole days of their lives listening in limbo, humming the same song on repeat, hearing promises that their call is very important and that the next available representative will be with them shortly.
In the pandemic, wait times for customer service calls only got worse as the world tried to grapple with a logistical nightmare. Some chose to make the best of the boredom, choreographing TikTok dances to fill the time. But for those with normal levels of positivity, more time on-hold meant more minutes tuned into the abyss.
No one rings customer service to chat. In most cases, people call to report a problem or request assistance—it's time taken out of a busy day. Yet bad hold music feels like a wasted opportunity. If it created the right atmosphere, callers might be less likely to hang up, or at least be in a more generous mood for the unfortunate operator who takes the call.
Background music is a proven tool in marketing, used to influence consumer behavior in shops and restaurants. Certain variations of volume, tempos, pitch, and texture have subconscious effects on our moods, arousing pleasure centers in the brain. Music triggers “happy hormones,” like dopamine and serotonin, which relax customers, who are then more likely to order an extra drink or throw another item in their basket.
So where did hold music, the most vanilla of genres, go wrong? When experts have spent decades crafting tinkling tones to placate us, why does our blood still boil? The answer is not so simple. Despite being designed to be inoffensive, the sounds you hear while waiting for assistance are riddled with requirements that hold-music-makers have deemed necessary for customer satisfaction. But unfortunately, the psychological torture of waiting on hold means that even the best hold music is likely to provoke you.
A lot of the irritation with hold music, says Katherine O’Neill, a music psychology expert at the University of York, is a “conditioned response.” We’re frustrated by being forced to stand by, and we get on the line expecting to be irked by whatever we hear. Put simply, “we are annoyed by the waiting, but this feeling becomes associated with the music,” O’Neill says.
But music does influence how we perceive the length of our wait. “Music is more effective than silence in decreasing the estimates of time passed,” O’Neill says. “Overall the presence of updates, or music, has a positive influence on satisfaction when compared to just a ringing tone.” Of course, it can’t erase the passage of time altogether.
But why does it have to be so bland? According to Danny Turner, the head of creative programming at Mood Media, a long-running provider of hold music, it is important “that music be in sync with brand or business standards.” Hard rock or techno wouldn't be a soothing choice for a doctor’s office, just as classical music wouldn’t inspire callers to join a gym. If vocals are in the mix, Turner warns that lyrics must be “business-appropriate”—not explicit or loaded. Also, if music is too enjoyable, it can backfire. “If we like the music, we pay more attention to it and then feel like we have been on hold longer,” O’Neill says. “Brands use beige music because it passes the time more than silence but in theory we pay less attention to it.” The result? A lot of very middle-of-the-road tunes when you call your cable provider.
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There are also serious technical considerations in play. “Avoiding selections with high-level frequencies, overly repetitive structures or vocal patterns, or massive audio level fluctuations is quite important,” Turner says. “And with any audio production, you want to ensure that you work with the highest-resolution audio file as your source file.” Overly compressed files can have unpleasant playback, reducing even the silkiest of tones to those of an underwater robot.
Maybe the biggest challenge, and the reason every company doesn’t default to playing crowd favorites by Beyoncé or Adele, is copyright. Famous songs will generally cost thousands of dollars to use, unless a brand wants lawyers knocking on their door for copyright infringement.
But some companies will shell out the money to use popular hits. Apple's hold music, for example, has achieved a kind of cult following, with a playlist of customer care tracks on Spotify curated by a former employee. Likewise, in an Apple subreddit, customers have tried to identify and share Apple's “fire” tunes. “Not joking I'm on hold right now and it's like this light EDM/jungle music. This girl is also moaning in the background. Anyone know where I can find, like, their playlist for this?” one Reddit user asked. Another gave a quick solution: “Shazam the call.”
According to urban myth, Apple CEO Tim Cook upended Apple’s hold music after a customer wrote in complaining of “ugly distorted” music. The story goes that he listened to the music, had the same jarring experience, and promptly changed the quality of the tunes. In the last few years, Apple has taken its caller experience to new heights, allowing customers to skip songs from a set playlist and effectively DJ their own on-hold music experience.
Apple is an outlier, however, a company that has figured out a formula few others can replicate without Apple-sized resources. Without that, hold music is doomed, burdened with the thankless task of cheering people up when they’re at their most irate and impatient. Its fate is to remain relegated to the background with the simple objective of trying not to drive us nuts.
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